Better Storytelling Secrets
Authors discuss their writing techniques.
Hi, I’m Mark O’Bannon. Welcome to this rare look into the secrets of storytelling from published authors.
Today, I’m joined by, David Gerrold, the author of over 50 books, including “The War Against the Chtorr” series of Science Fiction novels.
David is also the author of the most popular episode of the original Star Trek series, “Trouble with Tribbles.”
Life as a Writer
How did you get into writing?
By accident. I really wanted to produce and direct. But they were paying me to write, and it seemed like a fun to make money without really working. Writing is seductive. It distracts you from other, more important things.
When did you first realize that you have what it takes to be a writer?
When I cashed the check.
Where do you get your ideas from?
There used to be an odd little store on Lankershim Blvd. in North Hollywood, but since the neighborhood has been redeveloped, I’m now picking up used ideas at yard sales and flea markets. It’s amazing what a bit of rust remover and a new paint job can accomplish.
How do you develop your ideas into a story?
I ask one essential question. What’s missing that keeps me from believing it?
What would I have to see in these people for me to believe in them? What would I have to see in this situation or in this circumstance for me to believe in it? (There are no Earthlike planets. There are only lazy writers.)
What kind of Science Fiction do you enjoy working with?
Anything that makes me gasp in surprise and say, “Wow! I didn’t know that.” If I postulate that X is possible, the fun is in discovering the consequences, both intended and unintended.
What genres would you like to explore in the future?
Wealth. Oh, wait. That’s not a genre, is it? I don’t think in terms of genres. I think in terms of story.
Do you work from an outline?
Not anymore. That takes away the surprise of discovery. Now I just point myself in a direction and start typing.
How do you build your story?
One piece at a time.
All writing is list-making. Really. Whether you’re writing a shopping list, a to-do list, code for a computer program, a book report, an essay, or a novel. The essential question is simply, “What comes next?” Ask that question and there’s no such thing as a block.
If you don’t know what comes next, then do the opposite of the obvious. Surprise yourself. Throw a monkey wrench into the machinery. Make the situation even worse for the hero.
Spider Robinson says, and I will cheerfully steal this bit of wisdom from him because he’s stolen several of my best puns (“the shortest distance between two puns is a straight line”) that the job of the writer is to surprise the reader. There should be a surprise in every chapter, on every page, in every paragraph, even in every sentence.
I would add to that, the surprises should be truthful, elegant, and eloquent.
For you, what makes a great hero?
Doing what’s right in the face of massive disagreement. For some people, heroism is getting out of bed and facing the day. The single mother who works two jobs so her kid can go to college is a hero. The gay guys who adopt unwanted special needs kids are heroes. The guy who refuses to compromise his integrity in business is a hero. Any person who tells the truth is a hero. These are the everyday dragons we all have to fight – and it’s so easy to just give in and give up and go along that it takes deliberate and conscientious effort to say, “No, I will not sell out, I will not give up, I will not quit.” Heroism is taking a stand and living that stand.
If one of your characters were to describe you, what would he/she say?
Whitlaw would probably say, “He’s doing the best with what he has.”
How much time do you spend researching the setting for your stories?
So far, about sixty-eight years.
I don’t know what it’s like for other writers, but 90% of what I do in life is research. (The other 10% is lying awake nights and planning revenge. This is because 90% of all fiction is about revenge in one form or another.) I walk around the world, looking at everything, especially people, muttering “source material, it’s all source material” and then like last night’s beans in this morning’s bath tub, it bubbles up again in unexpected places.
What settings would you like to explore in the future?
I’m fascinated with Luna and Mars, of course. I’ve got a planet named Hella I’m working on that’s still in its Jurassic era. And of course the homeworld (or whatever passes for it) of the Chtorran invasion is on the list.
Do you like to know the purpose of your story before you sit down to write it?
I know the feeling of the story when I start writing, that helps me find the voice of it. But purpose? Hell, I still haven’t figured out my smartphone.
Do you have any favorite lines from your stories?
Life is hard. Then you die. Then they throw dirt in your face. Then the worms eat you. Be grateful it happens in that order.
Do you have a routine? A certain place to write? Do you listen to music?
I had a routine, but my backup singers quit to form their own group.
I can write anywhere I can sit with a keyboard, but my big computer sits in the front room of the house so I can watch the neighbors’ big black cat stalk gophers.
I listen to music, a lot. The Beatles, ELO, Pink Floyd, Beethoven, Saint-Saens, Gershwin, Vangelis, Tchaikovsky, Harry Nilsson. I confess to a weakness for actual melody.
How do you deal with writer’s block?
Can’t say. Never had one. (Honest.) I’m genuinely puzzled by the whole phenomenon. All I have to do is ask two questions: 1) Why was I enthusiastic about writing this story in the first place—what was the feeling that got me excited about writing it? Can I get back into that feeling? And: 2) So, okay, what comes next?
How do you go about fixing a story?
Don’t break it in the first place. But look—no story is ever really broken. A story is a palimpsest, a series of corrections one on top of another. The mistakes you make along the way are part of the process of discovering what the story isn’t about, so you can find out what it is about.
If you feel the story has bogged down, go through it and cut out every piece of bullshit you can find. Bullshit is lies—but it disguises itself as explanations, justifications, rationalizations, excuses, and everything else we do to avoid accountability, which is really about avoiding being in the moment. So take out all the explanations and let the story tell itself. It also helps to cut adverbs and adjectives too.
Cut what doesn’t work and see what’s left.
How do you know when to stop?
There’s an old joke. Why did God invent the orgasm? So writers would know when to stop masturbating. Does that help?
You stop when there’s nothing left to say. An occasional, “God, I’m good,” is allowable. But wash your hands afterward.
Words of Advice
What words of advice would you give to new writers?
Quit. If you can be discouraged, you will be discouraged – so quit now and save yourself a lot of time and energy and anguish. If hearing this pisses you off then you might actually have enough determination to finish something and send it out.
But there’s another reason why I think quitting should be considered as an option:
There are a lot of great writers in the world, they write because they have something important to say and they can say it in an entertaining way – but there are a lot more, a multitude more, of writers who write because they just don’t know how to do anything else. The world doesn’t need any more second-rate writers. We’re already up to our ass in dreadful books. (Some of them are mine.) What this world does need is good plumbers, good doctors, good scientists, good people rolling up their sleeves and making a difference for others. A good writer can do that, but a second-rate writer just wastes people’s time.
What’s the best thing you’ve ever written?
The Martian Child. First I lived it, then I reported what I’d lived.
What are you working on now?
I have a dozen short stories I want to finish, three novels, two screenplays, and some updates to previous work. I also have a twice-a-month column for SD Times and I’ll be doing “metatorials” for a new online radio station. It’s a good thing I’m retired or I wouldn’t have the time for any of it.
And yes, I am working on that book too.
I’d like to thank today’s author, David Gerrold for being with us today.
I’d like to thank you as well. Please check out the other great interviews in this series with authors, and remember to keep writing! The next published book could be yours.
– Mark O’Bannon
About the Author
David Gerrold is a Science Fiction author who started his career in 1966 while a college student by submitting an unsolicited story outline for the TV series Star Trek. He was invited to submit several premises, and the one chosen by Star Trek was filmed as”The Trouble with Tribbles” and became one of the most popular episodes of the original series. Gerrold’s novelette “The Martian Child” won both Hugo and Nebula Awards.
Visit David Gerrold online:
Got Tribbles? http://www.TribbleToys.com
Written by Mark O’Bannon
Mark O’Bannon is the CEO of MEOw Publishing and is the author of “The Dream War Saga.” His books include: “The Dream Crystal”, “The Dark Mirrors of Heaven”, and “Aia the Barbarian.”
You can find Mark on Google+ and Twitter. Over the past 15 years, Mark has taught Writing, Self-Publishing and Internet Marketing for authors. Visit his blog, “Better Storytelling” or his website, www.MarkOBannon.com